The inaugural meeting of the National Council for the American Worker took place this week. Formed by an executive order, the council aims to equip workers for future workforce needs. Its goal is “to prepare Americans for the 21st century economy and the emerging industries of the future … foster an environment of lifelong learning and skills-based training, and cultivate a demand-driven approach to workforce development.” The council is charged with producing a National Workforce Strategy.
Leading the initiative, Ivanka TrumpIvanka TrumpMary Trump calls Donald Trump Jr. her 'stupidest' relative Trump Tower debt added to watch list as vacancies rise House panel tees up Trump executive privilege fight in Jan. 6 probe MORE announced that over 100 companies had signed a “Pledge to America’s Workers,” promising to reskill over 4.3 million American workers. Previously, Walmart pledged to train 1 million workers. The president’s daughter has made skills enhancement a cause celebre and utilized her celebrity to call attention to the deficit between university education and employer needs.
These initiatives come as the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates in its “The Future of Jobs Report 2018,” released on Monday, that 75 million jobs “may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines.” All is not doom and gloom, however. The WEF estimates that 133 million jobs may emerge as humans and machines work together in the future. Although the net number of jobs created may exceed those lost, the impacts of this disruption may be disproportionately placed on unskilled workers.
Not surprisingly, the report finds that high-speed mobile internet, big data, artificial intelligence and the cloud will dominate the world of work. Eighty-five percent of employers said they would be very likely or likely to have expanded big data analytics by 2022. The adoption of robots is growing — one in three employers say they will deploy them in many sectors — especially non-humanoid robots in domains involving physical labor. Crucially, the WEF found that financial services employers are most likely to adopt humanoid robots.
Of concern to workers, one in two employers anticipates reducing their full-time workforce by 2022. This should not be surprising; the percentage of tasks that machines can perform is rising. The WEF estimates that, in just the next four years, machines are likely to perform slightly less than half of the job tasks currently done by humans.
Machines won’t just take over manual labor. Jobs that employ millions in customer service, advising, reasoning and decision-making are vulnerable to the march of the machines. For example, 30 percent of communications tasks are likely to be done by machines, and 27 percent of decision-making jobs.
The WEF recommends “rapidly raising education and skills levels of individuals of all ages, particularly with regard to both STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and non-cognitive soft skills, enabling people to leverage their uniquely human capabilities.” This is easier said than done — the sheer scale of the change will require significant investment and behavior modification. It will require hard choices at critical points. For example, are students with low high school scores to be directed toward vocational institutions, rather than to university degrees in education, arts, etc.? If yes, what about equity, access and autonomy?
Further, would such mandates impact harshly on socially disadvantaged groups and perpetuate inequality? Is it better to prepare people for secure employment, or let them gain degrees in disciplines for which they have a passion? Is education purely instrumental, or are empowerment goals just as important?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Equally, it is clear that continuing the usual educational policies will not work; there are mismatches that markets alone cannot correct. And the cost of education continues to grow. If this cost is to be subsidized by the state, it may be legitimate to expect some return on investment rather than merely indulge vanity programs.
The higher education sector also is being disrupted by technology. High-speed internet, AI and big data mean that education can be provided at much lower cost without the need for expensive sandstone buildings. And if employers seek more market-sensitive skills from workers, slow-moving universities may not be the best place for meeting that need. Employer-driven certifications are growing in popularity, most clearly in the IT sector.
This could expand to other areas — for example, Amazon might offer certifications in marketing, sales and business. Ditto Google, PWC, Facebook, Tesla and other companies for IT, accounting, communications, engineering, etc. Such courses could entail an internship component that enables employers to try before they buy, recruiting workers they have educated and trained. Naturally, an emerging divergence in outcomes between employer-driven education and university provision may mark the end of some universities and many programs. Universities will be forced to better engage with employers in curriculum development and experiential education to remain relevant.
The WEF report confirms other studies by Frey and Osborne, the OECD, and McKinsey about the rise of automation and vulnerability of the weakest workers. Governments have done precious little so far, and relying on them for massive changes to curriculum, entry standards and more may be folly in a fast-moving world.
The Trump administration’s focus on vocational education and training delivered by employers fits nicely with the WEF’s recommendations. However, it addresses only part of the problem and does not tackle university education. A superior intervention may be offering tax incentives — to employers and students — and eliminating minimum degree requirements in many areas. That would place decision-making in the hands of those directly impacted.
Sandeep Gopalan is a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He previously was co-chairman or vice chairman of American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, a member of the ABA’s immigration commission, and dean of three law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries and served as a visiting scholar at universities in France and Germany.